Image - Guiman Shin
Viewing Strangeland is all about surrendering to the experience and absorbing the carefully crafted atmosphere, rather than searching for narrative or connection to character. It’s a truly exceptional piece of performance/installation art, but don’t expect a story. And that’s not to say there isn’t one, just that I couldn’t find it. Without the Director’s Note, I’d figure it to be about a group of horny monkey-people shut in a box for too long with not enough sunlight and nothing to do. But the Director, David Pledger, explains that we are to “imagine the agency of Strangeland as a disembodied artificial intelligence. Or a post-human organism. Or a self-sustaining ecosystem which has its own categories, its own time-space continuum and existing principles.” Ok, so that didn’t help me much either. I got that there was a bunch of people stuck somewhere who had either regressed or forgotten all they ever knew. I got that they are “trace elements of civilizations past”. But is that enough to make for a satisfying and engaging work of theatre?
For me, Strangeland is vastly more engaging than it is satisfying. It’s certainly one of the slickest productions I’ve ever seen. The performances from the 7 strong cast, drawn from the Not Yet It’s Difficult (NYID) and Wuturi (from Korea) companies in their first collaboration, are flawless. The timing, execution, and unison of the movement is spellbinding. And I could not imagine this production without the inspired lighting design by Paul Jackson and Niklas Panjanti. In fact, all the elements that make for outstanding theatre are present in Strangeland: the lighting, the set design, the costuming, and the performances are all exceptional. The one element that doesn’t quite match that level of excellence is the sound design. For such a visceral work, I found the use of the heavy industrial sounds disappointingly familiar – they are so common in futuristic pieces (Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of Carol Churchill’s Far Away comes to mind, as does A Dream Play, recently produced in Melbourne by Ignite). I would have loved to hear a soundtrack based more on primal, organic sounds instead.
All these highly successful elements make for an engaging experience, particularly as that experience begins with being led by torchlight into the bowels of the Arthouse Meat Market through dry ice so thick you can’t see more than a foot in front of you. A wonderful surprise comes halfway through Strangeland when you realise the audience has been split in two and you’re staring across at the other half with the performers actually in the middle. Suddenly your perspective is thrown and you start to view the piece in a different way. It’s a very clever and a highly effective way of breaking the fourth wall.
With so much to like about Strangeland, I’m left wondering why I didn’t. I appreciated it very much, but wasn’t moved by it. If I wasn’t meant to be, then it achieved its aim, but the thing is, I really wanted to be. When presented with writhing, violent, primal characters who throw themselves against walls, hump each other, spin in wrought circles, and reach up to an elusive sun, I want to feel some measure of empathy. I think this is where a more organic sound design with greater depth may have come into its own. There is real beauty in the physicality of the staging and the conviction of the performers, and yet, I was left largely unmoved. It’s an odd feeling to walk away with.
Undoubtedly Strangeland will not be for everyone. For the sheer brilliance of the execution alone though, I’d recommend it. Theatre experiences like these don’t come along every day.
not yet it’s difficult and wuturi present
Venue: Arts House, Meat Market, 5 Blackwood Street, North Melbourne
Dates: Wed 5 - Sat 8 August
Duration: 60 minutes no interval
Tickets: Full $25 / Conc $18
Bookings: www.artshouse.com.au or 03 9639 0096